April 7, 2014

Receivers still early in learning curve

Arizona State is returning most of its scholarship wide receivers from last year, including star junior Jaelen Strong, but other than Strong it's a group that is inexperienced and unproven on essentially all fronts.

Of the team's 309 receptions last year, 75 were snagged by Strong. The combined total number of catches by other full time wide receivers who are on this year's roster is 14, or an average of one catch per game. Sophomore Cameron Smith had eight catches for 129 yards and walk-on sophomore Frederick Gammage had six for 32 yards.

Junior D.J. Foster, who played frequently at the 5-receiver (slot) and finished second with 63 receptions for 653 yards, has lined up exclusively at running back this spring now that Marion Grice has moved on.

Strong, who primarily plays the boundary position, finished with 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns and second-team all-conference honors in just his first season at ASU.

After excelling at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif., Strong arrived only a week before camp started in August and had to rapidly adjust to the high-tempo offense after spending the summer focused on academics. Though he was never fully conditioned, Strong still played a huge part in an offense that averaged 39.7 points per game.

Following another few months working on his strength and conditioning, Strong said he feels great physically and expects to have even a better upcoming year.

"I feel a lot stronger and just in better shape overall," Strong said. "That was the first time I've ever gone through a winter training like that after the season and [head sports performance coach Shawn Griswold] doesn't play around. But it really helped me though and I can't wait to do even more this summer.

"I just think I'm getting a better release at the line, beating press more easily and my routes have gotten better. I still want to get even better but I'm [improved]. My conditioning is better so I should be able to make even more plays now and won't be winded at all out there."

Not only is Strong in more ideal shape, he also has an already well-established connection with senior quarterback Taylor Kelly which he believes could be invaluable to him and the offense having potentially a breakout year.

"Having that familiarity with Taylor is going to really help because we got that year under our belts together and know each other real well now and he's a really good quarterback," Strong said. "That's just going to help us out a lot this year."

While Strong has proven himself within the system, the same cannot be said of the returning players. Gary Chambers, a 6-foot-3, 209 pound junior working with the first-team at the 5-receiver slot position and had zero catches last season. He has good size and reliable hands but hasn't been targeted much this spring.

Opposite of Strong at the field-side position is Gammage, who played sparingly last year. Gammage was elevated to the first-team spot this spring after previous starter Richard Smith transferred to Boise State before the start of practices last month.

Gammage, ASU's best offensive walk-on, has performed well in the spring and while he isn't big and probably won't beat the defense deep on a consistent basis, is a relatively sure-handed target nearer the line of scrimmage on slants and screens.

Earning a scholarship as a walk-on is no easy task, and Gammage is all too aware of it.

"They're telling me just to keep working and keep doing what I'm doing," Gammage said. "It's a statement and I have to prove myself out here every day. I'm not the same out here as everyone else, you know, the scholarship guys. I have to do more and be more so that's why they tell me to just keep working."

Freshman Ronald Lewis, 6-foot-0, 188 pounds, redshirted last year along with freshman Ellis Jefferson, a 6-foot-4, 209 pound receiver who has shown flashes of high potential at 9-receiver position behind Strong.

Smith, who has been practicing at the 2-receiver position, saw limited action last year as he adjusted to the Division I level. He has good speed and potential as a route runner but needs to become much more consistent.

Save for Strong, the rest of the receivers will not only be competing with each other for starting spots but also with the influx of talent the Sun Devils will be adding at the position in the fall. Jalen Harvey, Tyler Whiley and Eric Lauderdale are all four-star prospects who will challenge for spots on the depth chart.

Lauderdale, 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, will arrive at ASU out of Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, Calif., as one of the highest rated junior college receivers in the country.

Current players are confident that being around for even a year has its advantages, however are also looking forward to the challenges they will face later in the year.

"It's just the rookies you know man, they'll just have a lot to learn," Gammage said. "With us out here we just have more film work and more experience. It'll be good though for them to come in and compete with us because we really are going to compete. The best players are going to play is what the coaches tell us so we'll see what happens when they get here."

A big emphasis this year for the young group of receivers will also be perimeter blocking, an area in which the group struggled last season and is a point coaches continuously have preached throughout the spring.

"We've got to be physical," ASU wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said. "Coach Graham talks about us being an offense being physical with a defensive mentality and that's what he have to do. Every day we're going to go out and we're practicing being physical in our blocking and our guys are starting to embrace it."


  • Senior tight end De'Marieya Nelson was banged up near the beginning of Saturday's scrimmage and didn't play the rest of the way. That left the Sun Devils with very limited options and redshirt freshman Grant Martinez ended up playing essentially every snap and led the offense in catches and yards.

  • Sophomore Devil backer Viliami Latu was held out Saturday due to a concussion, which led to redshirt freshman Chans Cox taking a majority of the reps at the position and junior Eriquel Florence played more than he has in recent practices.

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